Actor Jason Segel and his costars in the film "The Muppets." (Andrew Macpherson / Muppets…)
Backstage at the old Muppet Theater, Kermit the Frog is manning his usual station, thanking his hardworking troupe — which, in this case, includes his assistant Scooter, a couple of penguins and at least one chicken — and reminding them that rehearsals begin the next morning at 9 sharp.
As the colorful characters film take after take for their return to the silver screen, you'd never guess it's been more than a decade since the Muppets were gearing up to put on a show for moviegoers (their most recent feature was 1999's "Muppets in Space"). Inside a soundstage at Universal Studios, Kermit always hits his mark, and he even manages to try different line readings for director James Bobin ("Flight of the Conchords") before the team disperses for a short break.
Set for release Nov. 23, "The Muppets" sees best friends Gary ( Jason Segel) and Walter, a die-hard fan of Kermit and the gang, venture from Smalltown, USA, to Los Angeles to tour the old Muppet Theater, which has fallen into disrepair after years of disuse. After they overhear the sinister Tex Richman ( Chris Cooper) divulge his secret plan to tear down the historic venue to drill for oil, Walter and Gary (and Gary's girlfriend, Mary, played by Amy Adams) decide that they must help reunite the Muppets to save the building.
Between takes, Kermit says this new movie (the troupe's seventh) has given him a chance to resurrect classic material — he does a reprise of his trademark song "The Rainbow Connection" at one point — but also to demonstrate his range as an actor.
"People are used to seeing my being silly, but I'm very dramatic in this movie," he says. "The film is about the Muppets trying to get back together after having been split for many, many years. It's just a movie, of course, but I had to play this very seriously as though that had actually happened. It's easy to imagine what life would be like without all my friends around, so I sort of Method acted off of that."
With Walter and Gary and Mary, Kermit has several new friends, but Segel just might be the most enthusiastic. The actor, who co-wrote "The Muppets" with his "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" director Nicholas Stoller, has been a lifelong fan of the late Jim Henson's creations.
"Walter's like me when I was a kid," Segel said. "His dream has always been to meet the Muppets because they're the only people in the world he's ever seen that are like him.... It was neat to create such an innocent character, he's pure and naive."
For his part, Kermit has only kind words for his costars. He says Segel's "a big kid," adding that "the only problem is he's very tall, so I have to do most of my scenes standing on boxes. He's 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4, and I'm only about 18 inches high."
He also thinks Walter's got a bright future ahead of him. "He's new to our group," Kermit says. "Walter is a nice guy, he's a very young, talented guy."
But mostly he's just excited to have a chance to make movies again. "Not only is it a big project but we get to be big on the screen," Kermit says. "It's good for all of us except Piggy. She's not crazy about being any bigger."